Nova woke up when her bracer started vibrating against her wrist.
Truthfully, by now, it wasn’t a bracer anymore. Recent advances in holographic technology had reduced it to more of a transparent, almost invisible bracelet fitting snugly around her wrist. A trio of pinpoint-sized projectors inside that bracelet handled the work of casting the screen into the air above her wrist and detecting presses and interactions with that hologram from her other hand. There was no need for a physical screen anymore.
It felt like a huge upgrade, and for the past week or two since she started wielding it, Nova was still kind of thrown off by the change, but the old design had been mostly the same for almost two decades. An overhaul was long overdue. She’d get used to the new model soon enough.
I wonder if Dad upgraded it to reward me for finally spilling the beans on the supernatural stuff. Maybe the upgrade was ready since a long time ago, but he kept it in reserve for a big occasion.
Of course, no matter how different the bracer looked and operated, Nova could still use gestures with her left hand to control all of the bracer’s features. Which she did now, responding to the phone call.
“Nova,” Ryner’s voice said. “Good morning. Sorry to wake you up.”
Nova could hear the smile in Ryner’s voice as he replied. “I know you’d like to, but unlike you, I don’t go for that sort of thing with my relatives. That’s just weird.”
Nova sighed. Ryner’d better have a good reason to wake her up so early in the morning. It was – Nova’s left hand twisted once to tell her bracer’s to display the time, and one of her sleep-filled eyes cracked open – barely noon.
Okay. Well, maybe not that early. But still.
‘What do you want, Ryner?’
“Me? Nothing much. Maybe just to say hello. But a bunch of people have been whining at me about you, so I figured I’d put a stop to it by acting directly at the origin of those complaints. Do you have a minute while I go through the list?”
“Fantastic. First is Dad. He wants you to visit the labs in Saltwell more often. He didn’t say why explicitly, but you know it’s because he wants to study your magical powers. Apparently, he’s just purchased a new electron microscope, which, uh, presumably does greater things than the one he already had? I don’t know. I don’t remember the specifics, but you get the gist of it. You’re the one who’s interested in that stuff. I could barely understand half of Dad’s explanation as it was, so don’t ask me to repeat them.”
Ugh. I should have kept my fucking mouth shut. One moment of weakness after twenty-one years of silence and boom. A few days later, everybody around me knows about it. Well, at least no one’s strapping me to an operating table to vivisect me. From that perspective, their reaction is really restrained. I don’t know if I could contain my curiosity so well if I suddenly learned magical powers were real. I guess it helps that the only obviously supernatural thing about me is something harmless like keeping my body clean.
‘No need for that,’ she signed to Ryner. ‘I already researched this on my own years ago. Also, stop calling it a magical power. That makes me sound silly.’
This was the advantage of having a mad scientist father who owned an underground base full of measuring and analysis equipment. Nova had availed herself of them years ago already, to test the limits and mechanics behind her ‘clean body’ trait. Since she’d been trying to remain discreet about it at the time, she hadn’t been able to really delve too deep into it, but she’d still got the basics of it down.
She’d found her ‘magical power’ could vaporize liquids and sublimate solids beneath a specific mass and volume that physically touched her body. The maximum configuration of mass and volume varied depending on the material. The ‘dirt,’ whether it be mud or metal shavings or wood dust or ink, didn’t magically vanish into nothingness. It remained in the air around her. It truly was nothing more than a phase change from solid or liquid to gas. Which could be relevant if what the trait cleaned off her was a toxic compound. She might end up breathing it by accident if it happened without sufficient air flow to carry the poison away from her. As for how this phase change happened, Nova didn’t know. Her body didn’t appear to secrete any mysterious substance. Her analysis had been able to detect localized fluctuations in temperature in the ‘dirt’ that touched her, but hardly enough to account for a fragment of steel, no matter how tiny, suddenly turning into gas. There was probably some variation in pressure or a transfer of energy somewhere she hadn’t been able to spot during her rudimentary tests.
Nova supposed the tests Aaron wanted to perform now might shed some light on those mysteries, but she’d somewhat lost interest in it after she confirmed that she was unable to casually lean on the wall of a bank’s vault and wait for her trait to sublimate the wall right off so she could waltz in unimpeded.
Well, in truth, she was still curious. And she definitely intended to find out sometime in the future, but the issue was currently pretty low among all her other priorities. Also, despite the secret being out to everyone in her family – Esfir included, Nova was still uncomfortable with discussing it too openly. Each time, she would worry about letting slip more than she already had. Like the fact that she’d reincarnated with full memories of her shitty previous self. She almost regretted admitting the truth back when Aaron had asked her about it, even it looked like he’d already known a lot about it anyway.
“Then call him and tell him that. Maybe he’ll calm down a bit if you do. He’s been drowning everyone in scientific fervor for a while, now.”
‘He and Mom both.’
“Heh. I wouldn’t qualify her fervor as scientific. My arms still hurt from all those pushups we had to do yesterday.” He sighed. “I didn’t think she’d force us to go back to training at Viper Nest after so long. I’m a businessman, damn it! It doesn’t matter if I can’t run a marathon or win a knife fight against a special forces soldier! And she even brought Esfir into it! And she did better than me! Can you believe it? I was quite impressed, but at the same time, I remembered all the times I’d boasted to her about all the tough training I did when I was young and what a manly man I was. It was so embarrassing when she tried to comfort me about my awful performance.”
‘Ryner, whining to me about Esfir being nice to you is just low.’
“Haha, right, sorry. But still, it’s not like you to sleep in so late. Are you that tired? You’re the one who stayed with Viper Nest the longest so I’d have thought you’d be accustomed to training like this by now.”
‘The training tired me because I had to go through three times as much of it as you guys. It was very unfair. I had to continue long after you and Lynn and Esfir went home.’
“Hmm. Tough luck, I guess,” Ryner said, sounding supremely unconcerned and unsympathetic. “Now then. Complainer number two is Louis. Asked me how you were doing these days. I don’t know why he didn’t call you directly. Well, no, I do, but still… How long is he going to carry that torch? That’s quite sad.”
‘Keep the commentary to a minimum, please. You’re wasting time I could spend sleeping.’
“Hey, who do you think I am, your secretary? Excuse me if I’m trying to vent. I had to listen to His Majestic Princeness beat around the bush for almost half an hour before he finally got around to telling me he wanted to invite you to a ball at the palace this evening.”
‘He really should’ve called me, then. Isn’t it awkward going through my brother for this kind of thing?’
“It was awkward. Beautifully so,” Ryner said, awfully cheerful about his best friend’s unfortunate love life. “The guy doesn’t know how to court a lady at all. It was really funny. Still, I transmitted the invite, as he asked. I suggest you call him to give him your answer.”
‘How about I tell you and you call him back? Mister Secretary.’
“How about fuck you?”
‘Why not? I wouldn’t mind if you did.’
‘You’re hurting my feelings.’
“And I’m a married man. In any case, I’ve done what I needed to do. So. Call Dad and Louis as soon as possible. And tell them to ring you up directly if they want to say something to you, all right?”
‘There aren’t any more people? You made it sound like a dozen different people had called you to complain about me. Two people is hardly what you’d call a bunch.’
“I may have exaggerated a little. But the two of them called me one after another this morning. It was terrible. I was trying to sleep after yesterday’s exertion. So since they woke me up with their nonsense, I’m waking you up. As a form of poetic justice.”
‘You’re a very petty man, big brother.’
“I’m also a very busy man. And on that note, catch you later, little sis. Bye.”
And before Nova could even reply, Ryner hung up the phone. She let out a long-suffering sigh. She didn’t want to call her father, right now. He’d try to convince her to share more of her secrets or study those she’d already revealed together with him. Oh, he’d be subtle about it. He wouldn’t harass her or pepper her with questions, but he’d try to steer the conversations toward those waters nonetheless. Nova didn’t want to subject herself to that kind of struggle right after waking up.
Louis would be better. He still hadn’t given up on Nova even though his parents were seriously starting to get on his case about marrying, by now, because the kingdom couldn’t do without a queen and his coronation as his father’s replacement wasn’t necessarily that far away. However, even though he still somehow held hope, Nova had been very clear and explicit in her refusal; she wasn’t very fond of mixed messages. So, if she took care to be just as clear now, she might actually be able to take him up on his offer without necessarily pouring any more salt on an open wound.
It wasn’t every day a commoner like her could go to a royal ball, after all, and Nova found herself interested despite her best intentions.
Not to mention it had been a while since she’d met him and his sister Delia face to face. Maybe Ingrid would be there, too? Nova hadn’t seen her for months, now. The old woman was starting to really get on in years and had quit her job at Saltwell’s daycare center. These days, she spent most of her time resting inside her residence in the capital.
Her mind made, Nova sent a message to Louis telling him that she’d see him tonight. And that this didn’t mean she agreed to be queen. She quickly received a response informing her that this wasn’t his intention when inviting her – he just wanted to spend some time with a friend and catch up – and confirming that he’d welcome her presence.
After which Nova threw off her covers and padded out of her bedroom and down the stairs. She didn’t bother putting on any clothes; it was warm, and there was no one but her in the lighthouse, anyway. Well, even if she hadn’t been alone, she wouldn’t have cared much.
Stifling a yawn, Nova stretched her arms up and out as she made her way into her kitchen. She hadn’t lied to Ryner. Marian had forced her into some pretty grueling military training yesterday. In fact, she’d been doing so more and more regularly ever since Nova’s trip to Amidonia two years ago, when she helped Batman and Robin with their organ-harvesting problem. At first, Marian only put Nova through this training. But recently, everyone else in the family had had to step up their game, as well.
I don’t really know how much Wieslaw told her, but Mom’s taking this very seriously. Maybe even more seriously than me, somehow. I’m not going to complain; I’m in better shape than ever. But it’s still pretty fucking tough.
Fortunately, Nova’s body was pretty good at recovering from this sort of punishment. Muscle soreness never bothered her for very long. Even now, it had only taken a slightly longer night’s sleep than usual to do the job. She was pretty much back to normal already, whereas Ryner was apparently still in pain despite his lighter training regimen.
Gloating inwardly at her brother’s well-deserved suffering, Nova whipped herself up a quick meal of salmon and rice, with a lemon sauce to accompany it. Her training and experience working as a professional cook helped make even remains from yesterday taste just as good as a fresh meal. It helped that the ingredients were of high quality, too, of course. She gathered it all into a bowl, grabbed a spoon from the holder, and stepped into the veranda. She plopped down sideways into one of the comfortable seats there, slung her legs across the armrest, and enjoyed her lunch while gazing down at the view of the sun shining on the lake through the broad windows. The water looked so close it almost seemed to be lapping at her feet.
She didn’t hurry. Even if she wanted to arrive early at Louis’s ball, that still left her most of the afternoon free to do whatever she wanted. Her lighthouse wasn’t far from the capital.
Haaa, this is the life. It’s so good to be a NEET. Though do I really qualify as a NEET, technically? I’m not in education or employment, but I do train regularly. Though I don’t train to take up a job, so I suppose I’m disqualified here, too.
But even as a NEET, Nova wasn’t bored. She had things to do. Not military or martial training, though. She’d had enough of that yesterday; now, it was time to rest. Work at her hobbies, maybe.
She glanced down at the empty bowl in her hands and the spoon resting in it. Both were carved from wood, and expertly at that. Artistic reliefs and ink drawings lined the outside of the bowl and up and down the handle of the spoon. Nova had made them by hand some time ago. Like every other piece of furniture in her lighthouse. She couldn’t make something like a fridge or an oven with her paltry skills, of course, but everything she could replace with something handmade, she had. The table, the desk, the chairs, the bed, the bookcases, the cutlery, the plates…
It had kept her busy for a while.
Now, she had another project going. She’d probably work on that, today.
Taking a contented sigh, Nova climbed down from her seat and went back to the kitchen to wash her bowl and spoon. She left them to dry in the sink and directed her steps toward the front door. She exited the lighthouse and headed for her garage. The sun and the wind felt nice on her skin. The pebbles carpeting her front yard pricked at the soles of her feet, hovering just on this side of painful. It provided her senses with a contrast to the earlier soft silk of her bedsheets; it wasn’t entirely unpleasant.
The shaded insides of the garage were nice and cool. Her car occupied one side, her motorcycle next to it. Her workshop was in the back, its tall, broad shelves filled with materials and tools, its forge feeding into a chimney that merged with the wall and rose up to pierce the ceiling. Next to a cluttered work table in the middle of her working space stood a coat rack, with stained overalls hanging from one of its branches by a belt hoop. Nova put them on. She likely wouldn’t handle any dangerous material, but she might work with metal, and she didn’t want sparks falling on sensitive bits.
She slung a tool belt around her hips, then approached the work table and leaned over the blueprints strewn there. They were designs papers for a sailing boat.
No, not a boat. A ship. That sounds a lot better. My ship. Soon, I’ll be Captain Nova Storm. Damn, the more I think about it, the cooler it sounds.
This was Nova’s new project. It had been since her previous sailboat had been wrecked in a storm a few weeks back. And sure, she was wealthy enough to just buy a luxury yacht that could pilot itself and be lived in year-round without any drop in comfort compared to a high-class hotel suite. But it wouldn’t be truly hers if she didn’t make it with her own hands! With it, she would sail out over Lake Baikan. Maybe, she’d go fishing. Or she’d go diving during the night when everything was dark and silent. Or maybe she’d just laze around on the deck, let herself be lulled to sleep by the rocking of the waves.
In any case, no matter what she did, it would be fun.
Only a little more than 2 years left before undefined shit hits the mysterious fan. It’s coming quickly. But Mom’s got the training part down and is forcing me to go through it. So I’ll just focus on the fun part. Right. Sounds like a legitimate plan.
With a smile in her mind if not on her lips, Nova set to work.
# # #
She only came back to reality when the sun was about to sink below the horizon and bathed her workshop in pink and orange hues through the garage’s windows.
Hmm, better get ready to go, then.
Nova lifted her tongs to examine the quality of the long nail she’d just finished forging. Satisfied, she left it with the others of its kind, then diligently set about cleaning the mess she’d made in the past few hours. She put out the fire roaring in the forge, then wiped the tongs, pincers, hammers, saws, axes, and anvils she’d used. She reorganized the blueprints and stored back her tools in their rightful places. She brushed off the wood and metal dust that had accumulated on the floor.
She didn’t bother noting down her progress or writing a journal or fixing her todo list, though. Her memory invalidated the need for such things.
Finally, Nova slipped out of her overalls and hung them on the rack. She stepped out of the garage, and for a little while, she closed her eyes and let the wind cool off her heated body.
When she opened her eyes again, they were greeted with the last embers of the sun sinking into Lake Baikan.
Nova let out a deep, satisfied sigh. Days like this, where she could get lost in her work without interruption, where she made apparent progress in something challenging and rewarding that she’d set out to do, were truly, deeply enjoyable. From Nova’s perspective, it almost seemed like she derived more joy out of this single day than from her entire past life.
She’d heard of people being ‘healed’ from looking at cute pictures of puppies and kittens, but for her, just living a life that wasn’t entirely drab and meaningless was healing. A single day like this was better for her mind than a dozen sessions with her therapist.
She was, in a word, happy.
Nova took the time to appreciate the taste of this happiness as she strolled back to her lighthouse, like a sommelier keeping a good wine in her mouth for a while and swirling it around her tongue to properly get a taste of its rich flavor. Even after more than 21 years of sampling, this taste hadn’t gone stale, either. Nova just had to remember some of her, no, his worst days back then, when even a coward like him had been just about ready to throw himself off a building or step in front of a bus, and the taste of happiness suddenly became fresh again.
However, if she wanted to be on time for the ball Louis at invited her to, she probably needed to stop wallowing and get going.
Nova didn’t bother taking a shower. The time she’d spent out in the wind after she was done cleaning her workshop had allowed her trait to work its wonders and leave her body spotless. Thus, she quickly threw on some simple clothes, as she figured Louis would provide her with a suitable dress for the evening, and hopped on her motorcycle.
The road was empty, so Nova allowed herself a little more fun. She twisted the handle, and the bike shot forward. Nova reveled in the exhilarating feeling of the wind striking her body…
…until the wind, the road, the bike, and the world suddenly winked out of existence and disappeared around her, and she found herself soaring through a white, featureless void, completely unsupported.
Nova barely had time to curse inwardly before she met the ground, which was also spotlessly white and flat and featureless. She tumbled violently for a few moments before her brain kicked into overdrive and she found her pace and balance again. She somehow managed to shift and tuck herself into a controlled roll before finally coming to a stop on her hands and knees.
The whole thing had gone by and ended as fast as lightning, but cold sweat already coated Nova’s back, and her arms were trembling slightly. If this had happened on a concrete road, she really might have died just like this. The speed of her crash would have broken all the bones in her body. At the very, very least, her knees would have been scraped raw and bloody. But somehow, in this strange white place, the ground felt more… pliable… whereas her own bones and joints and skin felt tougher. She knew, intuitively, that she could get run over by a semi truck and come out of it just fine, so long as she remained here. The closest analogy she could think of was that she’d stumbled into a dungeon’s safe zone, where her HP bar was locked at 100% no matter what attack hit her.
What the fuck just happened? Where am I?
Nova slowly stood up, her eyes wide, and tried not to panic. She took a slow, searching look at the blank, empty, limitless world stretching before her. Her bike was nowhere to be found, of course. Everything was gone, so abruptly. She was…
This is… that place. Limbo or purgatory or hyperspace or the matrix. Or something. The place where my… soul or whatever was transported after I died, where I filled out my character sheet. The god-thing’s place.
“Correct,” a voice she recognized – that of the owner of this realm – rang out behind her, responding to her thoughts. “Welcome, Archivist. And please, take a seat.”
Nova slowly turned around, nerves tight and brain hovering on the edge of overclocking just in case something spooky jumped out at her and she had to rely on her reflexes to avoid it.